Building a Winning Culture Should be a Key Part of Your Intentional Business Strategy

The following article was written by Ellen Rudnick, senior adviser and adjunct professor for entrepreneurship at Booth, and originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business on January 15, 2024. Read the original article on Crain’s.

We have all heard the terms “toxic culture” and “hostile work environment” or, alternatively, “great culture” or “great place to work.” But how does one build a company with a winning culture that not only attracts the best employees, but also motivates, engages and retains them?

This question becomes even more critical when you consider the results of a recent Glassdoor survey that found 77% of workers consider a company’s culture before applying and 65% of employees say culture is one of the main reasons they stay in their job.

As the leader of a business, you can shape its culture. Organizational culture represents the values, beliefs and principles of the company. It is the behaviors we adopt to get things done; it’s how we engage with our employees and our customers. It’s important to ask yourself: Is this a competitive culture or a collaborative culture? Do we reward individual performance or team performance? How much do we empower our employees to make decisions and take actions?

In my experiences of building health care organizations, our culture was key to driving our business success. We encouraged collaboration and teamwork among our employees. We emphasized transparency and over-communicated to ensure everyone knew what our goals were and how we planned to achieve them. My colleagues were not afraid to bring me “bad news.”

And above all, we valued integrity. When I learned our top sales representative was overpromising the capabilities of our products to customers, I had to make a tough decision. Realizing this team member would never be a good fit with our culture, I had to terminate him, despite the potential impact on our revenue. But, to my surprise, that termination increased the engagement and commitment of the rest of the team who were equally concerned about his behavior. It reinforced the importance of living our values.

I believe the pandemic also demonstrated examples of the strength, or weakness, of company cultures. At one company, where I served on the board of directors, our business was heavily impacted by the pandemic. We always treated our team members as our most important asset, and to protect as many members as possible from layoffs, our senior management team and board agreed to take significant pay cuts. Additionally, employees were offered extra services and benefits to assist them with the challenges they were facing working from home and managing family responsibilities. It was clear to them that their health and safety were our No. 1 priority. This resulted in more committed and engaged team members, and our retention rates have been far higher than industry benchmarks.

As you consider the type of culture you need to be successful, consider the behaviors you want your team members to emulate. As you recruit and develop talent, assess their ability to be a cultural fit. A wrong fit can often have far-reaching consequences for the organization. To quote Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group: “You need the right people with you, not the best people.” By being proactive in shaping your culture, you are building the foundation from which your business should be positioned for success.

Ellen Rudnick is a senior adviser and adjunct professor for entrepreneurship at Chicago Booth and served as the initial executive director of the Polsky Center. She was chairman of Pacific Biometrics, CEO of Health Care Knowledge Resources, vice president at Baxter Healthcare and president of Baxter Management Services Division.

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